Love at first sip is a pretty cheesy way to describe my relationship with Ethiopian coffee, but it gets to the point. At the age of 22, I was a bit lost, chasing a girl, and just beginning my time in the coffee industry as a barista. I was invited to a coffee cupping, and because I’m curious, I decided to attend. The ritual was strange and strict, but I complied out of fear of embarrassing myself, and about 20 minutes in, I had my first tastes of a washed coffee from Sidamo and a natural from Harrar. Both were incredibly expressive, flavorful, and fruity. Up until this moment, I had not bought into coffee being a specialty product. I worked at a coffee house because I wanted to spend my days talking about literature, film, and social justice - the coffee shop trinity.
My life changed with those sips. In that tasting were two people who would greatly shape my career. Andrew Timko, who was at that point a roaster at Kaldi’s Coffee, but would go on to become a great mentor of mine and my partner at Blueprint. Also in the room was Alex McCracken, who would hone my barista skills and prepare me for my first barista competition before leaving Kaldi’s and going on to Washington DC to open The Wydown, an excellent coffee bar (and eventually two).
Since that day, cupping coffee and pursuing flavor have possessed my career path and much of my social life and friendships. To this day, though, I’ve never found coffees that consistently bewilder and please me nearly as much as Ethiopian coffees. When I taste a lovely washed Ethiopian coffee on the cupping table I swoon and become objectively disabled. The coffees from Ethiopia are sweet, juicy, and completely lovely. I often find myself equating them to the purple packages of Skittles or the many colors of the Starburst rainbow. These comparisons, though, fall short because they leave out the inherent and native “coffee-ness” of the coffees.
In the last 12 years, I’ve often dreamed about being able to travel to Ethiopia. With the opening of Blueprint in 2013, that dream started to look like a possibility. From our very early days as a company, I voiced my desire to eventually be our buyer for Ethiopian coffees. My main duties at Blueprint do not typically involve sourcing our coffees. I do have a big influence on the coffees we select, but Andrew does most of our sourcing and buying. The partnership between Andrew, Kevin, Mazi, Brian, Nora, and myself identified this type of country-focused buying as a worthwhile endeavor early on.
A map of the coffee growing regions of Ethiopia. Courtesy of Technoserve and Nespresso.
We are all quite passionate about our origin partnerships and coffee quality, so identifying a country or region we can “own” makes the day-to-day work all the more fulfilling. While my origin travel experience and contracting know-how may not be in top shape, my palate is excited and quite practiced with Ethiopian coffees.
This morning, after 25 hours of travel, I arrived in Addis Ababa for Blueprint’s first origin trip to Ethiopia. What I seek to do with this trip is quite simple. First, I hope to gain a better understanding of the Ethiopian coffee industry. My areas of inquiry will be into the current practices of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) and how that ties into farmer wages, traceability, and exporting. In addition, I hope to get a sense for how cooperatives and larger estates operate outside of the ECX. At more of a micro-level, I hope to gain a better understanding of the Ethiopian washed and natural processes and how they may differ from mill to mill.
Second, I hope to strengthen our partnerships. First, with our importing partners, Robert and Nico, of The Collaborative Coffee Source who have organized this trip. Second with exporters and producing partners in Ethiopia, like Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco, Abanezer Asfaw of Snap Coffee, and potentially Tariku Adinew of METAD. These are the fine folks who we’ve become connected to through their excellent coffee.
Meeting in person will help us determine how we can better collaborate and create mutually beneficial relationships.
Third, I hope to identify 3-5 coffees to feature among our Blueprint offerings 2018. We will be cupping quite a bit, so I imagine this part will be fun and easy.
The week-long trip will include cupping at the start and finish of the trip in the capital of Addis Ababa. During the week, we will travel south to visit producers in Yirgacheffe, Sidama, and Guji.